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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Helping Students Track Complex Texts

Q: How do you keep students on track while reading long, complex texts? My students often can't recall previous events, and they're reluctant to search through dozens if not hundreds of pages to find proof for the claims they're making.

With shorter texts, readers typically rely on their memories to recall "what happened" in the text, with a fair degree of accuracy. But what happens when a text is particularly long, involved, and read over an extended period of time? How can we help students better recall and access earlier events?

I rely upon annotating the text directly, and I recommend that for online passages and shorter texts which might be legally copied. But unless your students own the books they're reading, this isn't a practical technique.

For books, I would recommend Page Titles.

The Short Game

Upon our return from winter break, we resumed reading Newbery Honor author Gary D. Schmidt's Okay for Now. I realized that students wouldn't recall details of what they had read two weeks ago, so I asked them to number a page in their notebook from 1 to 100 (or, three pages, as it turned it). Students were then directed to skim each page we had previously read, and to devise a title which would 1) help to summarize that page, and 2) identify what was most memorable on that page. I modeled the first two pages, and we then completed two more as a group. After that, students were off to the races.

At first some students struggled to choose short titles which yielded a uniquely identifiable summary of the page, but I allowed quiet discussions between partners; these conversations helped students to persevere with the task and be successful.

Once I observed some signs of fatigue, I stopped students and announced that we were going to play a game. I asked each student to mark three favorite titles. "Choose titles you feel are clever, or especially descriptive of that page. The titles should be so accurate that anyone in the class will be able to identify the exact page you're describing."

I called on the first student who announced, "My Mother's Smile." Immediately hands shot up all over the classroom, and when I asked for the choral answer, nearly every students replied, "23!" Each student who was correct tallied a point in the margin of their page, including the student who shared the title, since he was successful in guiding everyone to the right page. Note that only a few students had the same title, but nearly every student had a similar idea which allowed them to determine the page. By calling out the same page number, they were successful.

Okay, Keith, cool game. But what's the point?

The Long Game

This turned into an excellent lesson on skimming and getting the gist of a text. Skimming and scanning are two tools that are indispensable for readers, especially in the context of nonfiction texts. In fact, skimming and scanning are likely used more often in everyday reading scenarios for adults than reading of complete texts.

After a long day sight seeing in the city, for example, we might stop at several restaurants and skim the menu posted in their windows. What type of fare does this restaurant offer and what prices are we expected to pay? That's skimming. Once we choose our restaurant and are seated, each of us might look quickly over the menu, me for cheapest option, my friend for a vegan option. That's scanning. Once I located the burger of my choice, I would then read closely to see that all of its ingredients were to my liking. That's my complete reading.

Nearly every day, we as teachers demand that students "read carefully and closely," but with skimming we demand that students do the exact opposite. And not surprisingly, it doesn't come naturally to students. In my classroom, we needed to discuss several times what we as readers could do to avoid the temptation to reread every page.

Students also learned not to be "too creative." Some students who devised an overly creative or funny title for a page soon discovered that no one else had any clue what page they were referring to. Classmates also argued that certain titles, one hundred pages from now, wouldn't make sense once the reader had forgotten the clever connection. Therefore, during the game, students were permitted to change their page titles if they heard another that they preferred.

When we played the game a second day (focusing on pages 30-75), I took the time to suggest alternate "poor" titles for each page, challenging students to explain why these titles weren't as effective as those they had created (some were redundant, others too general, etc). I also began setting them up for the final day's prompt, when I would ask them to describe the benefits of the the Page Titles technique. I asked, "What evidence can we find in the story that our protagonist Doug Swieteck appreciates beauty?" Using their page titles, students were able to identify several examples, from an icy bottle of coke to his mother's eyes to the flowers he plants in the yard to the Audubon images he admires in the library.

The Longer Game

As with all techniques introduced to my class, I provide students with a rationale before introducing the steps. The rationale for Page Titles was "to recall earlier events and ideas in a lengthy text."

But after two days in which we had completed one hundred page titles (roughly half of them at home), I wrote the following prompt on the board (student ideas follow):

What are the benefits of writing Page Titles?
  • to summarize the primary ideas or events of the page
  • to review pages which were read some time ago
  • to help locate pages quickly
  • to find where you left off
  • to easily locate text evidence
  • to remember important quotes
  • to identify important passages or events
  • to recognize patterns or recurring events 
  • to compare and contrast events
  • to refer to a certain page that a classmate discusses
  • to better help you understand a character's motives or actions
  • to eliminate the need to reread every page, every time
  • to focus your attention on what you've read
Students admitted that the last bullet (which I needed to provide myself) was particularly important, since we sometimes "read" to the bottom of the page, and see every word on that page, but then ask ourselves, "What did I just read?"

In the highly recommended Reading Strategies Book, Jennifer Serravallo offers several strategies for students to use in order to maintain engagement in a book. But can students always tell that they've broken engagement with a text? Struggling to create a page title is a clear indicator that you, as the reader, haven't read a page as closely as needed, or you have failed to make a connection between what you've read here and what you've read before. Creating a page title forces you to be mindful of each page.

For you, the teacher, this technique pays off big time. For reluctant readers, this strategy allows a painless way to review the text and cement understandings. For all readers, Page Titles allow students to more quickly access text evidence in order to respond thoughtfully to class discussions and writing prompts. Strategies such as Serravalo's Piling Together Traits to Get Theories (Strategy 6.21, page 186) or Notice a Pattern and Give Advice (Strategy 7.1, page 194) or Respond to Issues that Repeat (Strategy 7.20, p. 213) are made less intimidating when the scavenger-hunt aspect is removed from identifying direct evidence in a lengthy text. So the Page Titles technique isn't an end in itself, but in fact a tool that achieves loftier goals in the classroom.

Give it a go. I would love to hear about your students' experiences in the classroom!

Monday, January 2, 2017

Reading Reconsidered: A Playbook for Improved Practice

Whether you’re a new teacher of reading, a seasoned practitioner, or an old dog (like me!), Reading Reconsidered is a must read. Unlike so many other books on the subject of literacy instruction, this text provides an astounding repertoire of strategies and structures, tools and techniques, which can improve the instructional practice of educators at any level.

Where needed, the authors provide references to the studies behind their methods, but the book isn’t meant to be theoretical. It’s meant to be an action plan. The majority of practices discussed in the book are from the classrooms of effective teachers (many from Doug Lemov’s Uncommon Schools), teachers who have led ordinary students to achieve extraordinary results. The examples provided come from countless familiar texts (Grapes of Wrath, Number the Stars, The Great Gatsby, The Outsiders, Lily's Crossing, Lord of the Flies, Chains, etc.) which are taught in thousands of classrooms across the country. For seasoned teachers, many of this book’s ideas will reinforce and validate what you’re already doing in the classroom. As I read, I often found myself saying, “I’ve always done that, and I knew that it worked, but I never knew why until now.”

In other instances, I experienced small epiphanies.

Many teachers, for example, wonder why students do so well in reading comprehension when assessed informally or formatively but then perform poorly when assessed summatively or on “cold” material such as that found on standardized tests. The authors explain that a common cycle in classrooms is reading, discussion, and then writing. This typically yields good results, with all students seeming to be “on the same page.”

However, this particular cycle often yields a false positive; rather than expressing their understanding of the reading, students instead express their understanding of the discussion of that reading. The classroom discussion spackled over any misconceptions or glaring gaps in knowledge, and every student as a result now seems to possess a full comprehension of the text (including those students who may have neglected to even read the text, but paid diligent attention to the ensuing discussion!). That cycle's limitations never occurred to me, and I’ll admit I’ve been lulled by these false positives over the years, thinking that my students knew more than they truly did.

Regarding this practice, the book states, “You want engaged, enthused, deep-thinking readers driving discussion, but you also want to be sure that all students are able to generate solid meaning themselves.” The authors then show how to improve this cycle, as well as how to implement other reading-writing-discussion cycles which better encourage and assess comprehension of, and interaction with, the chosen text. In regard to TDQ (text dependent questions), the authors further explain:

TDQs are those that cannot be answered without a firm knowledge of the text itself. They cannot be faked by carefully listening to the discussion, for example, or by conducting an earnest but in exact reading of the chapter. They cannot be answered by recalling yesterday's reading or by having a strong background knowledge of the subject. To answer TDQs requires attentive reading. Nothing else will do. (p. 75)

Please realize that this book is NOT a quick read! That is meant not as a criticism but as a compliment. Nearly every single page of my copy has margins jammed with notes. Nearly every single chapter has caused me, a teacher 25+ years, to tweak what I’m doing in my classroom. I've revisited the chapter on Close Reading, for example, more times than I can count. While I’ve plowed through dozens of other books on literacy with only the slightest impact on my teaching, I’ll humbly admit that this book has helped me fine tune my practice in nearly every aspect. Using the myriad models and exemplars provided in the text as well as the DVD and web site, I’ve improved discussion, assessments, lesson structure and pacing, often with the slightest change.

That’s what I think is most notable about this book: rather than demand that teachers change everything they’re doing, the authors provide ways for educators to reflect on their practices, ask the right questions about what they're trying to achieve, and implement those targeted changes that aggregate impressive results over time.

To whet your appetite, here are a few thought from Reading Reconsidered:

On the job of the reading teacher:

The reading teacher's job... is to ensure that each and every student - privileged in knowledge and skills or not, motivated (at first) or not - moves steadily and reliably toward mastery of advanced, complex skills. This requires understanding how such skills are built, not just hoping they will bloom. (p. 2)

On "whole books" as source texts:

One of the most important aspects of choosing texts is choosing the types of texts — most important, books, plenty of them, rather than a constant diet of excerpts, passages, and other selections. We are strong believers in “the power of the book,” of students building a sustained relationship with the text over time and coming to understand its perspective and mode(s) of narration- and how they shift. In fact, only by glimpsing these changes and variations as part of a sustained relationship between reader and text can students really learn to read… Even in an era of test-based accountability, the most successful schools and teachers consistently opt, in our observations, for books — and books of substance — as the core of their instructional choices. (p. 25)

On the limits of leveling books:

The places where books fell when we graphed them didn't seem in accord with our sense of what students really found it difficult. This is best shown in the nearly equivalent Lexile scores given to Lord of the Flies and The Outsiders. They are, according to the graph, all but interchangeable. In terms of our students’ experiences reading them, however, they couldn't be more different. One was among the most challenging books our seventh graders read, while the other was among the easiest. (p. 27)

On the importance of reading for pleasure:

A world in which students did nothing but slog through hundreds of pages of Dickens would be a pretty dark and Dickensian one. Our advice is to address the plagues with balance and judiciousness. Should you read some texts just for the sheer joy of them? Or for the power of the story a certain book tells about the world? Of course! You don't need us to tell you there are lots of other reasons to choose books than text complexity, no matter how much it helps prepare students for college. (p. 43)

On the importance of challenging texts:

Fed on a diet of only what's “accessible” to them — but which is also often insufficient to prepare them for college — they are consigned to lower standards from the outset by our very efforts to help them. So the question for a harder text should not be whether but how, in addition to what. (p. 44)

On text dependent questions:

Text-dependent questions are specific and can be answered only when students have read carefully and understood an author’s specific arguments. They do not preclude other word the questions; in fact they often precede them. (p. 62)

On close reading:

As we noted earlier, regardless of what line(s) of questioning you choose to employ in a particular lesson, trying to Close Read with insufficiently complex text is unlikely to succeed. The rigor and value of establishing meaning correlate to the rigor and value of the text.(p. 83)

A key aspect of Close Reading, ultimately, is identifying and attending to a line of inquiry. It's what you do when you write a paper about a text. So it is often helpful to know before you start what idea you want students to read a text for. This does not have to mean there is a “right answer” so much as a consistent area of focus — a line of inquiry you will follow. Often this means modeling how to “argue a line,” tracing a theme, a motive, a conflict, or an image through the complexity of a text. Other times, it could mean asking students to identify the “line” they find the most interesting. That's great too — especially if they've seen you model how to do it right. (p. 99)

For example, it is important to use Close Reading skills in response to both challenge (“Wow, that is really hard; I'm going to go back through and tear it apart until I get what she means”) and opportunity (“Wow, that imagery is so striking; I'm going to go back through and make sense of why it seems so important”). (p. 102)

On secondary texts:

A powerful, rigorous, and engaging primary text is one of the key drivers of successful literacy instruction, but it is also useful to think about the additional shorter texts that relate to the primary text in some way. These secondary texts could give context, provide background, show a contrast, or develop a useful idea that helps students better engage the primary text. Nonfiction, we argue, is ideal as a secondary text. (p. 122)

On writing for reading:

Long ago, before credit cards and the Euro, when you traveled, you could use only money coins in the kingdom where you were at the time. Regardless of the amount of money you had, if it wasn't in the “coin of the realm,” it wouldn't help you much. To this day, ideas, interpretations, and analyses are similar. They get full faith and credit only if they are expressed in the coin of the realm, which, in college and in much of professional life, means in writing. Written responses are the way students demonstrate their depth of understanding. In almost any college classroom — certainly in the humanities — it is the format in which mastery is finally expressed and in which ideas get the fullest credit. (p. 160)

On the perils of confusing discussion with text comprehension:

Certainly at some point we want students to combine their own insights with the best of what their peers thought, but our responsibility as reading teachers is to ensure that students can create meaning directly from reading, on their own and without the support of a roomful of peers… Some of our smartest students are able to compensate for a lack of critical reading skills with good listening skills, and the two are not the same. (p. 163)

From Reading Reconsidered, pp. 164, 165

On student autonomy:

As students gain autonomy in their thinking, they’ll ideally begin initiating Stop and Jots without teacher prompting. Student-generated practices include marking up a text with notes in the margin, writing a quick self-generated summary at the end of a particularly challenging text, or posing a question regarding the author’s tone between paragraphs while reading. These are useful behaviors to look for to assess the degree to which students have internalized writing as a thinking tool: Do they grab their pencils and scribble notes of their own volition as they are reading or listening to discussions? (p. 169)

On revision in writing (using Read-Write-Discuss-Revise):

But revising is more than just a tool to bolster discussion. The act of revision forces students to refine their initial analysis. Writing to define is among the most rigorous and important tasks we can ask of our students. Consistently asking students to revise their writing supports them in effectively polishing their writing and ideas. Further, asking students to revise based on insights from the discussion causes them to listen better during discussion. It socializes students to listen differently — they must listen actively for ways to develop their initial ideas. (p. 173)

On explicit and implicit vocabulary instruction:

A primary goal of Explicit Vocabulary Instruction is to model for students the depth of knowledge that is involved in mastering words: to own a word has to know not just its definition but its different forms, its multiple meanings, its connotations, and the situations in which it is normally applied. Explicit Vocabulary Instruction models this for students by making a case study out of certain words and their application. Its goal is depth, and it requires studying fewer words better. It is a deep dive into a limited number of words — sometimes just one or two — rather than a cursory introduction or gloss-over of long lists of terms. (p. 253)

One of the best ways to ask students to use and apply new vocabulary words is to ground your questions in the text. Consider asking students to describe situations or novels that you are reading. (For example, “Which one of our vocabulary words describes how Jesse must be feeling right now? Why?”) (p. 283)


If you've ever read Teach Like a Champion, consider this a worthy companion. Reading Reconsidered describes how many techniques (such as Front the Writing, p. 165) from TLAC are put into play in the reading/writing classroom.

Reading Reconsidered is a huge book of over 400 pages, but don't let that daunt you. When we buy a recipe book we don't think, "I can never make all of this food at once!" Instead, we try one dish at a time, gaining confidence in an ever-expanding repertoire of dishes and the requisite skills needed to create them.

If your PLN is seeking a change-provoking title for a book club, this text will provide you with at least a year’s worth of study and discussion. It's especially effective in this regard due to the numerous specific teaching strategies, the DVD exemplars of these strategies in action, and the extensive print resources provided in text chapters as well as the appendix.

Highly recommended for teachers-to be, as well as practicing professionals at any level.